June 12, 2014 10:16:24 AM
WASHINGTON -- After two overwhelming votes in two days, members of Congress say they are confident they can agree on a bill to improve veterans' health care and send it to the president's desk by the end of the month.
The Senate easily approved a bill Wednesday to help shorten wait times for thousands of military veterans seeking medical care, a day after the House unanimously adopted a similar measure.
The Senate bill would authorize about $35 billion over three years to pay for outside care for veterans, as well as hire hundreds of doctors and nurses and lease 26 new health facilities in 17 states and Puerto Rico. The House would spend about $620 million over the same period.
Just three lawmakers -- all Republican senators -- voted against the veterans measures, compared with 519 lawmakers who voted in favor.
Opponents said the Senate bill was a "blank check" to spend billions of dollars with little or no way to rein it in.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the overwhelming Senate vote spoke for itself. The 93-3 tally came after the Senate voted 75-19 to waive normal budget rules and declare the bill an emergency.
"I think we've shown that we can overcome partisanship and move quickly on a very important issue," Sanders said, adding that he hopes to bring a unified House-Senate bill to a vote as soon as next week.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of House Committee Veterans' Affairs Committee, also was optimistic. Many of the provisions included in the Senate bill "are based on ideas that have already cleared the House, so I'm hopeful that both chambers of Congress can soon agree on a final package to send to the president's desk," Miller said.
The White House said Wednesday that President Barack Obama supports the Senate bill.
"Our No. 1 priority is getting veterans the care they've earned," the White House said in a statement. "To do that, we need to make sure that the problems identified at VA medical facilities get fixed."
The legislative effort comes as the FBI revealed it has opened a criminal investigation into the VA, which has been reeling from allegations of falsified records and treatment delays for veterans.
FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday that the investigation was being led by the FBI's field office in Phoenix, which he described as the "primary locus of the original allegations" being investigated by the VA's Office of Inspector General.
"We're working with the VA IG to follow it wherever the facts take us," Comey said.
The inspector general said in a report last month that 1,700 veterans seeking treatment at the Phoenix VA hospital were at risk of being "lost or forgotten." The VA has confirmed that at least 35 veterans died while awaiting treatment in Phoenix, although officials say they do not know whether the deaths were related to long waiting times for appointments.
The Veterans Affairs Department released an audit this week showing that more than 57,000 veterans have had to wait at least three months for initial appointments. An additional 64,000 veterans who asked for appointments over the past decade never got them.
The VA, which serves almost 9 million veterans, has faced mounting evidence that workers falsified reports on wait times for medical appointments in an effort to mask frequent, long delays.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned May 30, but the situation remains a continuing embarrassment for Obama and a potential political liability for congressional Democrats seeking re-election in November.
While the legislation will not solve all the VA's problems, it should "spark long-overdue change -- from the top down -- in order to ensure our veterans are getting the care and support they expect and deserve," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said the Senate bill created "an unlimited entitlement program" for veterans and voted against it.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., supported the bill but said "money is not the problem" at the VA. "It's management and accountability and honesty in treating the veterans" that are needed to improve care for veterans, Coburn said.
But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the bill's co-authors, said it was needed to respond to an ongoing national crisis. "Make no mistake: This is an emergency," McCain said.
In addition to Sessions, Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin voted no.
Four senators did not vote: Republicans Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Jerry Moran of Kansas and Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jeff Merkley of Oregon.
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